Mike Hill and Rocky Helm may coach high school baseball teams in different regions of Kansas, but they're hardly strangers.
Hill and Helm, in fact, were teammates on Lawrence's old Maupintour Travellers semipro team in the late '80s and early '90s.
Now the two former Travellers will be facing each other as coaches for the first time when Hill's Free State club meets Helm's Maize team in a Class 6A state tournament opener at 1:30 p.m. Friday at the Maize Sports Complex.
The former teammates visited by phone earlier this week.
"He said his team was terrible, and I said we were worse," Hill quipped.
Hill was playing baseball at Lawrence High at the same time Helm was playing the outfield for Kansas University, and eventually they wound up as teammates on Maupintour's team because Helm served as an assistant coach under Dave Bingham for two years after he graduated. Hill played baseball at Baker University.
As a Jayhawk, Helm patrolled center field for two seasons after transferring from Butler County Community College. The 5-foot-10 left-handed hitter still ranks No. 2 on KU's walks chart after drawing 56 free tickets as a senior in 1988.
After he left KU, Helm worked for a couple of years at Boeing in Wichita.
"I got tired of getting laid off, so I got a teaching degree," Helm said.
Now Helm, who earned a master's degree from Wichita State, teaches business and math at Maize High, his alma mater, in addition to being head baseball coach.
This is Helm's fifth year as Maize coach and the fourth straight state appearance for the Eagles (18-4), who finished second in 2000 but lost in the first round in 2001 and 2002.
"This is commonplace for them," Hill said, "and the first adventure for us."
Free State is indeed making the first state baseball appearance in the school's six-year history. The Firebirds (18-3) have done nearly an about-face from last season when they finished with an 8-13 record.
Newcomers Ryne Price and Robby Price have played a large role in the turnaround but, Hill stressed, "We have nine seniors, and we wouldn't be where we are without the seniors."
Most notable among the seniors have been shortstop Matt Berner, designated hitter Chris Coleman, outfielder David Allen and pitcher Matt Lane.
Berner is hitting .462 -- the third-highest average on the team behind the Price brothers -- while Coleman is hitting .362 and Allen .342. Lane is the Firebirds' best pitcher with an 8-1 record and a 2.56 earned run average.
Lane will be the Firebirds' starter Friday. If they win, they'll play a semifinal game at 10 a.m. on Saturday. Sophomore Jake Hoover (3-1, 272 ERA) would start that game. Senior Blake Dickson (4-0, 3.39 ERA) would hurl in the third-place or championship game later Saturday. If the Firebirds lose Friday, their season is over.